Usage Patterns

Before getting into the architecture of Cell, let’s talk a bit about the types of workloads for which Cell and other microprocessors are currently being built.

In the past, office application performance was a driving factor behind microprocessor development.   Before multitasking and before email, there was single application performance and for the most part, we were talking about office applications, word processors, spreadsheets, etc.   Thus, most microprocessors were designed toward incredible single application, single task performance.

As microprocessors became more powerful, the software followed - multitasking environments were born.   The vast majority of computer users, however, were still focused on single application usage, so microprocessor development continued to focus on single-threaded performance (single application, single task performance).

Over the years, the single-threaded performance demands grew.   Microsoft Word was no longer the defining application, but things like games, media processing and dynamic content creation became the applications that ate up the most CPU cycles.   This is where we are today with workloads being a mix of office, 3D games, 3D content creation and media encoding/decoding/transcoding that consume our CPU cycles.   But in order to understand the creation of a new architecture like Cell, you have to understand where these workloads are headed.   Just as the types of applications demanding performance today are much different than those run 10 years ago, the same will apply to applications in the next decade.   And given that a new microprocessor architecture takes about 5 years to develop, it is feasible to introduce a new architecture geared towards these new usage models now.

Intel spoke a lot about future usage models at their most recent IDF, things like real time voice recognition (and even translation), unstructured search (e.g. Google image search), even better physics and AI models in games, more feature-rich user interfaces (e.g. hand gesture recognition), etc.   These are the usage models of the future, and as such, they have a different set of demands on microprocessors and their associated architectures.

The type of performance required to enable these types of usage models is significantly higher than what we have available to us today.   Conventionally, performance increases from one microprocessor generation to the next by optimizing single thread performance.   There are a number of ways of improving single thread performance, either by driving up the clock speed or by increasing the instructions executed per clock (IPC).   Taking it one step further, the more parallelism you can extract from a single thread, the better your performance will be - this type of parallelism is known as instruction level parallelism (ILP) as it involves executing as many instructions out of a thread at the same time.

The problem with improving performance through increasing ILP is that from one generation to the next, you’re only talking about a 10% - 20% increase in performance.   Yet, the usage models that we’re talking about for the future require significantly more than the type of gains that we’ve been getting in the past.   With power limitations preventing clock speeds from scaling too high, it’s clear that there needs to be another way of improving performance.

The major players in the microprocessor industry have all pretty much agreed that the only way to get the type of performance gains that are necessary is by moving towards multi-core architectures.   Through a combination of multithreaded applications and multi-core processors, you can get the types of performance increases that should allow for these types of applications to be developed.   Instead of focusing on extracting ILP to improve performance, these multi-core processors extract parallelism on a thread level to improve performance (thread level parallelism - TLP).

It’s not as straightforward as that, however.  There are a handful of decisions that need to be made.   How powerful do you make each core in your multi-core microprocessor?   Do you have a small array of powerful processors or a larger array of simpler processors?   How do they communicate with one another?   How do you deal with feeding a multi-core processor with enough memory bandwidth?

The Cell implementation is just one solution to the problem...

Index High Level Overview of Cell
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  • scrotemaninov - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    #23: True, but I believe that when the SPE's access the outside memory they go through the cache. Sure it's a lower coherancy than we're used to but it's not much worse.
  • Houdani - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    18: Top Drawer Post.
    20: Thanks for the links!
  • fitten - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    "Given the speed of the interconnect and the fact that it is cache-coherant,"

    Only the PPC core has cache. The individual SPEs don't have cache - they have scratchpad RAM.

    #22: I believe the PPC core is a dual issue core that just happens to be 2xSMT.
  • AndyKH - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Great article.
    Anand, Could you please clarify something:
    I had the impression that the PPE was a SMT processor in the sense that it had to be executing 2 threads in order to issue 2 instructions per clock. In other words: I didn't think the PPE control logic could decide to issue 2 instructions from the same thread at any given clock tick, but rather that it absolutely needed an instruction from each thread to issue two instructions.

    After reading the article, I don't assume my impression is right, but a comment from you would be nice.

    As I come to think about it, my impression is rather identical to 2 seperate single thread in-order cores. :-)
  • Koing - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Cell looks VERY interesting.

    Any of you guys seen Devil May Cry 3 on the PS2? Looks great imo same with T5 and GT4.

    Cell at first will be tough like most consoles. BUT eventually THE developers will get around it and make some very solidly good looking games.

    Lets hope they are innovative and not just rehashed graphics and nothing else.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • scrotemaninov - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    I really hate just dumping loads of links, but this basically is the available content on the CELL. (slides)
  • mrmorris - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Brilliant article, there are few places for in-depth hardcore technology presentations but Anandtech never fails.
  • scrotemaninov - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Real concurrency is hard to do for the programmers. It's a real pain to get it right and it's hard to debug. Systematic analysis just gets too complex as there are just too many states, you end up with a huge graph/markov-model and it's just impossible to solve it tractably.

    Superscalar and SMT just try to increase ILP at the CPU level without burdening the programmer or compiler-writer. However, we've pretty much come to the end of getting a CPU to go faster - at 5GHz, LIGHT travels 6cm between clocks, and an electic PD will travel slower. As it is, in the P4 pipeline, there are at least 2 stages which are simply there to allow signals to propogate across the chip. Clearly, going faster in Hz isn't going to make the pipeline go faster.

    So the ONLY thing that they can do now is to put lots of cores on the same chip and then we're going to have to deal with real concurrency. IBM/Sony are doing it now with CELL and Intel will do it in a few years. It's going to happen regardless. What we need is languages which can support real concurrency. The Java Memory Model is an almost ideal fit for the CELL, but other aspects don't work out so well, maybe. We need Pi-calculus/Join-calculus constructs in languages to be able to really deal with these cpus efficiently.

    Your comments about CELL not being general purpose enough are a little wrong. IBM /already/ has the CELL in workstations and are evaluating applications that will work well. Given the speed of the interconnect and the fact that it is cache-coherant, I think we'll be seeing super-computers based on many CELLs, it's an almost ideal fit (as it is, you've almost got ccNUMA on a single chip). Also, bear in mind that this is IBM's 5th (or 6th?) generation of SMT in the PPE - they've been at it MUCH longer than Intel - IBM started it in the mid-90s around the same time that the Alpha crew were working on the EV8 which was going to have 8-way thread-level parallelism (got canned sadly).

    Also, if you look at IBMs heavy CPUs - the POWER5, that has SMT and dispatches in groups of 8 instructions, not the 3/4 that AMD/Intel manage.

    What I'm saying here, is that sure, the SPEs don't have BPTs of BTBs, they're all 2-way dispatch and not greater, but, they all run REALLY fast, they have short pipelines (so the pain of the branch misprediction won't be so bad), and, IBM have had software branch prediction available since the POWER4, so they've been at it a few years and must have decided that compilers really can successfully predict branch directions.

    Backwards compatibility doesn't matter. Sure, Microsoft took several years to support AMD64 but that didn't stop take up of the platform - everyone just ran Linux on it (well, everyone who wanted to use the 64bit CPU they'd bought). It'll only be a few months after the CELL is out that we'll have to wait until Linux can be built on it. 100quid says Microsoft will never support it.

    Frankly, considering that it's far more likely to go into super-computer or workstation environments, no one there gives a damn about backwards compatibility or Windows support. No one in those environments /wants/ a damn paper clip.
  • Reflex - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    #14: Replace 'lazy developers' with 'developers on a budget' and you will have a true statement. Its not an issue of laziness, its an issue of having the budget to optimize fully for a platform.
  • GhandiInstinct - Thursday, March 17, 2005 - link

    Wow Super CPU and SUPER RAMBUS? AHHHH!

    This will replace my computer. PS3 that is.

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